GCSE DramaHARD TO SWALLOWbyMark Wheeller

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerThe play has 31 charactersin all: 6 female, 3 male and22 characters of either sex.It can be performed by5 actors (3 female and 2male) when doubling. Theauthor notes that the playhas been performed in thepast by an all-female cast.The main characters areCatherine Dunbar, JohnDunbar (Catherine’sfather), Maureen Dunbar(Catherine’s mother) Simon Dunbar (Catherine’solder brother) and Anna Dunbar (Catherine’syounger sister).HistoricalContextHard to Swallow is a play based onMaureen Dunbar’s award-winningnovel and film “Catherine: The Story of ayoung girl who died of Anorexia Nervosa”.Catherine Dunbar died in 1984 aftera seven year battle against anorexianervosa. She was 22 when she died. Inher novel her mother has written anextraordinarily frank and courageousaccount of her daughter’s illness. Shenot only deals with the ways in whichCatherine’s illness affected her butalso the effect it had on her family andhow they reacted to it. Extracts fromCatherine’s diary, over the course ofher illness, give the reader furtherinsight into the psychological trauma ofanorexia.Mark Wheeller’s play uses the wordsfrom Catherine’s diaries and alsoof those most closely involved andaffected.GCSE DramaIt can be argued that this play challenges thestereotypical views of anorexia. People veryoften have pre-conceived ideas about the illnessand think it occurs when someone is simplylooking for attention. But this play shows theaudience a family who is actually searchingfor answers about a condition that they knownothing about and in watching them battle withthe problem, we come to realise that anorexiaaffects people in different ways.Anorexia Nervosa has been increasinglydiagnosed since 1950; the increase has beenlinked to vulnerability and internalisation ofbody ideals. There is evidence for biological,psychological, developmental, and socioculturalrisk factors, but the exact cause of eatingdisorders is unknown.Globally, anorexia is estimated to affect 2 millionpeople as of 2013. It is estimated to occur in0.9% to 4.3% of women and 0.2% to 0.3% ofmen in Western countries at some point in theirlife. About 0.4% of young females are affectedeach year and it is estimated to occur 10 timesless commonly in males. Rates in most of thedeveloping world are unclear. Often it beginsduring the teen years or young adulthood. Whileanorexia became more commonly diagnosedduring the 20th century, it is unclear if this wasdue to an increase in its frequency or simplybetter diagnosis. In 2013 it directly resulted in1

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheellerabout 600 deaths globally, up from 400deaths in 1990. Eating disorders alsoincrease a person’s risk of death froma wide range of other causes, includingsuicide.GCSE Drama2

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerOriginal StagingConditions First performance at OaklandsCommunity School on July 7th, 1988,billed as a preview so that the officialpremier could take place at theEdinburgh Festival. Here it previewedon August 29th, 1988 at the Heriot WattTheatre. The first performance was in a modern165 seat studio theatre. It was end onbut there was no proscenium arch. Upstage and across the middle was araised area, painted white. This areawas often used for characters withstatus, e.g. the doctor who deliversspeeches during the binge and torepresent the bridge in the Billy Goatsscene. A red carpet came forward fromthe middle of the raised area to give aloose impression of a catwalk.where Catherine did her diary entries,direct to the audience. To achieve the desired effect andimpact, real food was used. MarkWheeler commented “I wanted thebinge scenes to be horribly real.Catherine had to eat the most bizarremix of food in a crazed manner Itneeded to look disgusting. I was neverhappy with this unless there wereinvoluntary noises from the audience asthey watched”. A huge cinema screen was on the backwall to show slides, e.g. the scene whereMaureen shows slides of Catherinewhen she was 3-4. Lighting was used tosupport and enhance, and on occasions,it was performed without lighting. Contemporary music was used, e.g.“Looks,looks,looks” by the band Sparks.At key moments of Catherine’s journey,an underscoring of a music box withgnomic horror voices. Costume was naturalistic andrepresentational. However, Catherine,who Wheeler wanted to appear“noticeably different”, had her facepainted white like the stock Pierrotpantomime character (influenced byDavid Bowie in the Ashes to Ashesvideo). Naturalistic set was used to representkey areas, e.g. a fold down meal tablein light pine wood and 5 fold-up chairs,each place was laid with cutlery andwhite crockery. Under the table wasa rug, which offered an indicationof luxury and homeliness. This wasdownstage left. Downstage right wasCatherine’s bedroom desk (underneathdoubled as the baby’s playpen). This isGCSE Drama3

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerTaska) Look at the following images from productions of Hard to Swallow. Explain the reason whyproductions tend to use:i) minimalistic stagingii) neutral black clothing.As an audience member, explain and give reasons why you think this is successful orunsuccessful.GCSE Drama4

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheellerb) Look at section 2, pages 14- 15:i) With a partner, design a naturalistic set for a proscenium arch stage. Consider yourchoice of set and props, use of colour and fabric, and positioning. Present and explainyour choices to the class using a mood board.ii) Using the same scene, design a set for a traverse stage. In your design you must use 8projections. Find the images using the internet. Also consider what other set and propsyou would use and where they would be positioned.iii) Using the same scene, design a set for theatre in the round. In your design focusspecifically on the floor covering and the area above the acting area. Also consider whatother set and props you would use and where they would be positioned.iv) Write a detailed list of props for section 5 ‘At the Meal Table’. Explain your choices andthe reason behind your choices.c)i) In groups of 4, record a soundscape, which could be used for section 12. Decide atwhich points it would be played. Write a cue sheet showing where it would be faded in/out, the volume etc. Explain your choices to the class.ii) Choose a piece of contemporary music or a song, which could be used in section 1; TheBilly Goats. Explain the reasons for your choice.iii) Choose a piece of music or a song, which could be used as Catherine’s “theme” andplayed at key moments when they appear. Explain the reasons for your choice.d) Look at: Section 1 The Billy Goats Section 2 Christmas 73 Section 5 At the meal table Section 12 Section 26 of the mental health act.As a lighting designer, explain your lighting choices for these scenes. Considercolour and any lighting effects or “specials” you would use, e.g. strobe, gobos, andprojections. Use a cue sheet to show where and why specific choices have been made.Taska) Using the template on the next page design;i) suitable stage makeup for the character of Dr Clegg in section 12ii) an expressionistic mask design for Dr Clegg in section 12.GCSE Drama5

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerGCSE Drama6

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheellerb) Design a suitable costume, hair and makeup for Maureen in section 2 and 12. Think about: the period the play is set garments colour and fabric hair and makeup costume details, e.g. shoes, jewellery etc. reasons for choices contrasts between the choices for the character in both scenes.GCSE Drama7

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerThe structure ofthe playAnn McFerran in ‘Stage & Television Today’described the play as ‘elegantly structured’.The author has used the Billy Goat scenesas book ends to the play. This is anadaptation of the Norwegian Folk Tale ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’. In many renditionsof this tale there is a baby or child goat,mama goat and papa goat. There is nograss left for them to eat near where theylive, so they must cross a river to get to ameadow or hillside on the other side of astream in order to eat and get fat. To doso, they must first cross a bridge, underwhich lives a fearsome troll who eatsanyone who passes that way.When asked for the significance of thesetwo scenes, the author Mark Wheellerreplied:“The significance of the Billy goats. I can’tremember how they came about but Ilove nursery rhymes and different waysof looking at them. I remember a bookcalled Shockheaded Peter at my unclesthat was for children but it had quitean impact. also those big dogs in theTinderBox. I’m a big David Bowie fan.Ashes to Ashes, the children’s song typething, and love how that little tinkly tunetouches something of the child in me.yet it’s about something else. It reachessomething quite primeval. We had, atone point, a Billy goat scene to paralleleach scene. In the end the play was toolong, so I reduced it using the Two Touchtechnique. This was the result. I liked theidea of surprising the audience. Whenthey came to see a play such as HTS theywill have preconceptions of what it’sgoing to be about, and I wanted them tobe completely thrown off by this opening.“This isn’t what we were expecting!”GCSE DramaI wanted them to be thrown intoconfusion. I didn’t want them to be leftthere (I hate that happening) so, at theend when they have seen the play, theywill understand the allegory. By insertingthe verbatim sections into that scene, itelaborates on it and hopefully the linksbecome clear. The audience realise whatthey have learnt”.The adaptation of the tale aptly illustratesparental pressure on youngsters – atrigger of the syndrome - and thereluctance to relinquish childhood. It alsoemphasises optimism in the fact that Jothe goat with Mummy and Daddy Goatsucceed in crossing the bridge. ThroughPatricia and Jo the goat we can see thatthere is hope and people can recover.The structure of the play is such thatnaturalistic scenes of Catherine’s story arebrilliantly counterpointed by more stylisedones in which the cast enacts some of thepsychological causes of anorexia. VeraLustig in ‘The Indpendent’ comments:“.naturalistic scenes flow seamlessly intosequences of highly stylised theatre.suchpotent theatre!”When teaching the play, the author’sstage directions must be adhered to. Forexample, at the beginning of The BrusselsSprout Scene, the directions state: “Thewhole of this scene is performed stylisticallywith people frantically changing roles,playing scenery, properties and characters”On the other hand, at the beginning ofSection 9 - ‘Bingeing’ - the stage directionsstate: “This is one of the few scenes to benefitfrom naturalistic staging”.It’s worth noting here that in one previousproduction of the play a few years agothere was a cast of about 30. Most ofthe cast didn’t have lines. They provideda highly charged chorus who magnifiedthe feelings of the central characters bysome incredibly imaginative use of their8

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheellerbodies and physical relationships. Again,in a more recent production they used achorus of people to support the emotionallines very effectively.The CharactersWhen teaching the students about thedifferent characters and how to portraythem, once again, the author’s stagedirections must be looked at carefully.The author is very detailed in his stagedirections, for example, in The BrusselsSprouts Scene, he very carefully refers tothe contrast in pace:“The contrast in pace immediately followingthe lines “.successful in my quest.” and “Ihate you” should provide dramatic ‘moments’highlighting the manner in which Maureenfeels she has been let down or let down herdaughter.”In the same way, the author gives theactress playing Catherine, detailed stagedirections in this section:“Throughout the scene Catherine shouldbe staged doing a repetitive action such aslaying and re-laying the table or brushing herhair. She begins the scene doing this actionslowly and calmly (although obsessively)gradually becoming more frustrated leadingfinally to her angry outburst on her line“Mummy, you’re late!”Portraying the main characters in theplay can be challenging because they areexpected to interact with each other andinteract with the audience. The situation ofthe family is very strained and emotionalthroughout and the actors will have to tryand identify with their characters.Getting to know their characters isimportant and the technique of ‘hotseating’ would benefit each actor in thisrespect.GCSE DramaJohnJohn, the father, is a complex character.At the beginning, he seems to blameCatherine and his reaction to her is angerrather than sympathy. The actor playingthe part of John could be asked a series ofquestions, including: What was your initial reaction toCatherine refusing to eat? Did you blame her at all? Did you blame yourself for hercondition? Did your relationship with her changeduring the course of her anorexia?AnnaAnna, the younger sister, is anotherchallenging character to play. The actressplaying this part, in order to get to knowthe character, must look at her linescarefully and interpret what they sayabout her. She seems angry towardsCatherine and some of her lines are rathercruel and hateful towards her sister:“Your obsession is ruining our lives. I hatebeing your sister.”“How am I meant to concentrate on my Alevels with all this going on?”“She’s so manipulative, she twists all of usround her little finger. Maybe it would bebetter if she did die.”And yet, towards the end of Catherine’slife, she says this:“I wanted to show her how much I cared.”9

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerWhen asked about her character, oneactress described Anna as follows:“She is a hardworking girl who is sometimesunable to come to terms with her self highexpectations, this is because she thinks ofherself as being perfect, which was triggeredby her being good in literally every subjectthat she has done in education and whensomething doesn’t go as planned she breaksdown because she is unable to controloutside things that change on their own.An example of this in the play would be insection 11 shortly after Catherine’s secondsuicide attempt when Anna has an argumentwith Catherine when Catherine demandsto see her weight on the weighing scales,here Anna refrains, and says: “She’s ruiningeverything for us how am I meant to focus onmy A levels with everything going on?” I wouldalso describe her as a control freak becausethe fact that she can control her studyingregime makes her feel invincible and it worksout well for her, so she tries to do so in reallife because it is the only thing that makes herfeel comfortable because she likes everythingto be the way she sets it.”[Acting Auditions with Gary Willis]It would benefit each actor portrayingthe main characters to prepare a similardescription of their characters, againlooking carefully at the words the authorhas given them.GCSE Drama10

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerTaska) Look at the diagram below which explores the positioning of characters and the semioticsof that position:DYNAMICUP-LEFTFORMALREMOTEUP-CENTRE imate/StrongerStrongest/IntimateCooler/Weaker/Less AUDIENCEb) Look at section 12. In groups of 3, practically explore where you would position Catherine,Dr Clegg and Maureen to explore the changing relationships and atmosphere within thescene.c) As a director, choose 3 rehearsal techniques you would use to explore the relationshipbetween the three characters within the scene.d) Look at Maureen’s speech on page 49. With a partner, experiment performing it usingdifferent tones and moods, e.g. angry, annoyed, loud etc. Compile a list of which moodsand tones are most successful in conveying the speech.e) With a partner, improvise a scene between Maureen and John, the evening after the visitto Dr Clegg. Discuss where you think it could take place, what is the motivation for eachcharacter within the scene, who has the control within the scene, what is the relationshipbetween the characters within the scene, what is the mood of each of the charactersGCSE Drama11

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheellerwithin the scene. How does John react to the events?f) The diary entries play a significant part within the play. Write Catherine’s diary entry afterthe visit to Dr Clegg. Write stage directions for the actor who would perform it focusing onmovement and vocal directions.GCSE Drama12

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerThemesis nobody, including herself, is able toresolve the terrible situation.AnorexiaPressureThis is obviously one of the key themes ofthe play, which carefully charts the effectsthis illness has on both Catherine andthe family. The play takes us through thevarious stages and each stage is exploredfrom both Catherine’s and her family’sperspective.The opening scene presents the Dunbarfamily as the perfect family; however, anumber of different pressures changesthis situation. The pressure of worldevents has a massive impact on thefinancial situation of the family, this in turnhas an impact on the stability and routinethe Dunbars are accustomed to. John feelsthe pressure to provide a certain standardof living and control the family. Maureenfeels the pressure to make Catherinebetter and Anne feels the pressure ofliving with a sister who has such enormousneeds. But it is Catherine who has theultimate pressure of dealing with theterrible effects of anorexia.IsolationCatherine feels isolated from the reality ofeveryday life, she feels isolated becausepeople do not understand what she’sgoing through and, more importantly,why she’s going through it. Maureenand the rest of the family feels isolatedand powerless because, as the illnessprogresses, nobody can give them thesolution or answers they need.ControlJohn, as the strong father figure, triesto control the situation in the way heknows best by telling Catherine she has tobehave in a certain way. Maureen tries tocontrol the situation by taking a numberof measures, which eventually provecounter-productive in solving Catherine’seating disorder. The medical professionthroughout the play is constantly battlingto control what she eats. However, it isCatherine who has the ultimate control asshe carefully charts what she will eat andeventually her inability to eat anything.Self-Image/perfectionFrom her decision to “rebrand” herselfthrough her choice of name, to her strivingfor perfection, Catherine’s self-image isdistorted and although she is aware of thedamage she is doing to herself the tragedyGCSE Drama13

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerTaska) In a group, compile a list of the scenes which you think illustrate the theme of control.With your group, highlight the key moments of control in each of your chosen scenesthrough a series of still images. Give each image a title, which a member of the group willvocalise.b) With a partner, compile a selection of images from magazines, the Internet etc. based onthe theme, self-image, which could be used as a design for a backcloth for a contemporaryproduction of Hard to Swallow.c) In groups of 5, improvise a scene where the Dunbar family, after the death of Catherine,are the focus of a TV documentary called “Pressures of Modern Life”. Base your ideas onspecific information from the play which illustrates this theme.d) In a group of 4, choose a scene which you think illustrates the theme of isolation.Using the following stages: Traverse Thrust Theatre in the Round Proscenium Arch.Experiment with the positioning and movement to see how the theme is most successfullyshown to an audience. Explain which acting area you felt was most successful in highlightingthe theme.GCSE Drama14

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark WheellerThe staging ofthe playThe play has 14 different sections whichsuggests that the set should be minimal.They vary from the household to thehospital to a general location.The staging of it could work well on athrust stage with the audience on threesides – thus becoming more involvedin the action - with a screen in thebackground to display the slides referredto in Section 10.Alternatively, it could work just as well on aproscenium stage.One production in the past had a granddining table centre stage with grand chairsaround it. The table and chairs were usedin a variety of ways. not just as tableand chairs but it seemed to be a mostappropriate symbol for the whole play andinstantly located mealtimes as a focus.The cast acted on and under the table atvarious times.In another recent production of the playthe floor of the stage was black and whitesquares with 3 black blocks on three of thesquares. For costumes, all the cast werein black with white gloves. they added afew extra items when they were playingdefined characters.What’s unique about Mark Wheeller’s playis that a director is allowed to give his owninterpretation of the play and very oftenfind things that the author possibly didn’tknow were there.Teaching this play gives the teacher theopportunity to introduce the studentsto a variety of theatrical styles, genresand techniques. They can be introducedto more than one theatre practitioner.GCSE DramaThere are Brechtian elements in the playin addition to the Grotowski techniqueof using actors as props. Section 8: TheBrussels Sprouts Scene in particular givesthe cast the opportunity to act in the genreof physical theatre and they are expectedto employ the technique of Grotowski:e.g. the stage directions make it quiteclear that in this scene people franticallychanging roles, playing scenery, propertiesand characters.Another example, later in the scene, is thisstage direction:Cast make a car.with features such aswindscreen wipers etc.When considering the use of sound inthe play it must be remembered thatthere are stage directions for the actorsthemselves to create certain sound effects,for example, in Section 11 the actorsare asked to make the sound of a foodprocessor, a human pedal bin, a car hornand the popping of a champagne bottle.However, there is one sound that occursfrequently during the play, which will notbe made by the actors, and that is thesound of a musical box (Pages 21, 27, 30,35 and 45). On page 27 it suggests that thesound of the musical box creates ‘anotherworldly atmosphere’. When analysed, theuse of the musical box occurs when thereis a change of mood or of going back intime.The use of lighting for the play can bechallenging. The lighting designer willwant to show the difference betweensome of the naturalistic scenes and thestylised scenes. The use of colours toconvey the tension in some of the familyscenes would be effective. Because ofthe episodic nature of the play and thedifferent locations, the designer can decideto light parts of the stage in some sections,create shadows, and use profile spotswhen individual characters address the15

HARD TO SWALLOW by Mark Wheelleraudience.It’s not surprising that Hard to Swallow,with its varied and challengingopportunities for directors and youngactors to experiment with differenttheatrical styles and techniques andinterpretations, has gone on to beperformed all over the world to muchacclaim.Useful backgroundresearch Hard to Swallow. Easy to Digest ISBN:978-0-9575659-3-7GCSE Drama16

GCSE Drama Original Staging Conditions First performance at Oaklands Community School on July 7th, 1988, billed as a preview so that the official premier could take place at the Edinburgh Festival. Here it previewed on August 29th, 1988 at the Heriot Watt Theatre. The first performance was in a modern 165 seat studio theatre. It was end on